A couple of years ago, I was asked back to the TEDxKyoto stage to give a few words regarding tips from storytelling as they relate to modern presentations. The 15-minute talk can be viewed below. The title of the talk is "10 Ways to Make Better Presentations: Lessons from Storytellers." But as I say early in the presentation, perhaps a better subtitle would be "Lessons from watching too many Pixar films." Below the video I list the ten (actually eleven) lessons. It's not an exhaustive list by any means. But it's a start. (Link on YouTube.)
(1) Turn off the computer.
Most people open a computer and create an outline. Don't do this. Preparation should be analog at the beginning. Turn off the technology and minimize the distractions. You've got to get your idea out of your head and on the wall so you can see it, share it, make it better. We've got to see the details and subtract and add (but mostly subtract) where needed. And we've go to see the big picture. Ideas and patterns are easier to see when they are up on the wall or spread out on the table.
(2) Put the audience first.
Even when we are "telling our story" we are really telling their story. If designed and told well, our story is really their story. Yes, the plot—the events and facts and the order in which they are arranged—may be unique to us, but the theme is universal. The message or the lesson must be accessible and useful for your particular audience. The advice may not be new and it may not sounds exciting, but it's true: Know your audience.
(3) Have a solid structure.
The structure can be very, very simple, but you need it there to help you build your narrative. Once you give the presentation the structure will often be invisible to the audience, but it will make all the difference.
Most presentations will not follow a classic story structure, but there are many narrative structures such as explanatory narratives, slice of life, and so on. The simple and obvious structure in my TEDxKyoto talk above follows a sort of "top-10 list." Any variation of a top-10 list (or countdown, etc.) creates an easy structure for both the presenter and the audience. The down side of a top-10 style is that it is nearly impossible to remember each point without writing it down. This is why I am providing this list in text form as well. For the live talk, my aim was not that the audience would remember each point, but rather that one or two points would stick with each person. And I hoped that the overall message would resonate and give people something to think about after the talk was finished.
(4) Have a clear theme.
What is your key message? What is it you REALLY want people to remember? What action do you want them to take? Details are important. Data and evidence and logical flow are important. But we must not lose sight of what is really important and what is not. Often, talks take people down a path of great detail and loads of information, most of which is completely forgotten (if it was ever understood in the first place) after the talk is finished. The more details that you include and the more complex your talk, the more you must be very clear on what it is you want your audience to hear, understand, and remember. If the audience only remembers one thing, what should it be? Write it down and stick it on the wall so it's never out of your sight.
(5) Remove the nonessential.
This applies to the content of your talk and also to the visuals you use (if any). Cutting the superfluous is one of the hardest things to do because when we are close to the topic, as most presenters are, it *all* seems important. It may be true that it's all important, but when you have only ten minutes or an hour, you have to make hard choices of inclusion and exclusion. This is something professional storytellers know very well. What is included must be included for a good reason. I'm quite fond of the advice by the legendary writer Anton Chekhov: "Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it's not going to be fired, it shouldn't be hanging there."
(6) Hook 'em early.
The fantastic filmmaker Billy Wilder said we must "Grab 'em by the throat and never let 'em go." We've got to hook our audience early. Don't waste time at the beginning with formalities or filler talk. Start with a bang. Get their attention and then sustain that interest with variety and unexpectedness, built upon structure that is taking them some place. Audiences usually remember the beginning and the ending the most—don't waste those important opening minutes. Too many presenters—and writers for that matter—get bogged down in back stories or details about minor—or even irrelevant—points at the beginning and momentum dies as audience members begin scratching their heads in confusion or boredom.
(7) Show a clear conflict.
No conflict, no story. Not every presentation topic is about a problem that needs to be dealt with, but many are. And we can certainly improve almost any talk by being mindful of what is at stake and what the obstacles are to overcome. Here's a definition of Story from the book Story Proof: The Science Behind the Startling Power of Story: “A character-based narration of a character’s struggles to overcome obstacles and reach an important goal.” This is based off of the ol' Protagonist-complication-resolution story structure. It may not apply directly to every kind of talk you give, but many examples that we give or experiences that we share to illustrate a point will be about a problem that needed to be dealt with. Make things clear, engaging, and memorable by illustrating the struggle.
(8) Demonstrate a clear change.
Affecting a change is a necessary condition of an effective speech. "A presentation that doesn’t seek to make change is a waste of time and energy," says business guru Seth Godin. Presentations and talks are usually a mix of information, inspiration, and motivation. Anytime we get on a stage to speak we are talking about change. You can think of change in two ways. First, the content of every good presentation or story addresses a change of some kind. Second, an effective presentation or a story told well will create a change in the audience. Sometimes this can be a big change and sometimes it is quite small. Too often, though, the only change the presenter creates in the audience is the change from wakefulness to sleep.
(9) Show or do the unexpected.
When we are surprised—when the unexpected happens—we are fully in the moment and engaged. In classical storytelling, reversals are an important technique. Do the opposite of what the audience expects (their expectations were based on your earlier setup). Your surprises do not have to be overly dramatic ones. Often the best way is more subtle. You could, for example, pose questions or open up holes in people’s knowledge and then fill those holes. Make the audience aware that they have a gap in their knowledge and then fill that gap with the answers to the puzzle (or guide them to the answers). Take people on a journey of discovery. And this journey is filled with bits of the unexpected. This is what keeps the journey moving forward.
(10) Make ’em feel.
Storytellers—filmmakers, novelists, etc. — know that it is emotion which impacts people most profoundly. Yes, facts, events, structure are important, but what people remember—and what is more likely to push them to act—is the way the narrative made them feel.
(11) Be authentic.
In the live presentation I mistakenly said that vulnerability was the formula for authenticity. I misspoke. What I meant to say was a willingness to take a risk and be vulnerable was a necessary condition for authenticity. There are no formulas. Vulnerability is what makes us human. We are attracted to characters like Woody (Toy Story) because we see ourselves in their fragility. It’s what makes them human. Even superheroes are interesting only when we know that they have weakness, including the perceived weakness of self-doubt. What made Robin Williams such a remarkable and beloved entertainer was his humanity and his authenticity. This is not something you can fake. Faking authenticity is like faking good health. Sooner or later its all going to come crashing down. Authenticity is built on honesty and a willingness to be vulnerable. It is risky, which is why authenticity is relatively rare, but so appreciated when it is found.
Wired for story
We are a storytelling animal. We are not a bullet-point-memorizing animal. We are wired to be attracted to story and to learn from them and to spread them. "The best stories infuse wonder," Pixar’s Andrew Stanton says. Everything depends on the context of the presentation, but in most cases a good presentation is a mix of logic, data, emotion, and inspiration. We are usually OK with the logic and data part, but fail on the emotional and inspirational end. Certainly leaders and educators need to infuse a bit of wonder into their talks that inspire people to make a change. A good presentation should not end when the speaker sits down or the class comes to an end.
We will not impact everyone in even our greatest presentations. But if we can get enough people talking about the content in the hours or days after our time on stage, then that may be enough. That's something. That's a small victory. Maybe we have lit a spark or motivated someone just a little to explore our message more deeply in future. That is change. It may not be a big change, but it is a change...and that is making a difference. And that is worth getting out of bed for.